This time of year we can’t help but look back and take note of what we have accomplished. I am incredibly proud of all our team has achieved for the citizens of Philadelphia in 2013. I hope that pride has been obvious from my blog posts highlighting many of our team’s efforts this past year. But a New Year is also about new beginnings. This is the time when many of us resolve to become better.
That is why eating better, exercising more, or generally living healthier are amongst the most popular New Year’s resolutions. For some people, it’s getting a better job or improving relationships, efforts to better manage their money and stress usually makes the list of resolutions. On occasion, I have made some of these resolutions myself. This year, however, I also resolve to focus on resolutions for my office that will help our Executive Team lead us to an even better year.
Below are the three “Manager’s Resolutions” that I’m making in 2014. These resolutions consist of scalable, value-driven changes that will take this great team to even greater heights in 2014. This list emphasizes areas to improve upon while also capitalizing on some of our greatest strengths. Hopefully, this list will be of use to you as you lead your team through another great year.
1) Institutionalize Creative Thinking
Most managers verbally support creative thinking but rarely implement processes to facilitate such thinking. As a result, we spend little or no time around “Ideation.” We fail to look inside and optimize how we come up with new ideas, new solutions. It’s important for your team to have a creative mindset, a space for regular meetings where they can take risks, share ideas, and solve problems outside the confines of the traditional workplace state of mind.
Looking to other organizations and learning best practices is always helpful but we should also encourage and harness the creative power of ourselves and our great people. Innovation and creativity is not reserved for the Amazons and Microsofts of the world. In City government, we should be able to regularly innovate as well. To innovate with intent.
This mindset has resulted in a meaningful shift around how we innovate and serve our citizens in Philadelphia. Our CIO position is now a “Chief Innovation Officer,” Adel Ebeid. We created innovative roles such as: Chief Data Officer, Director of Civic Technology, and Chief Customer Service Officer. Those roles were a good first step toward creating a culture of creativity. We also created our new Center of Excellence with its Director, Jackie Linton, committed to improving government performance around Project Management, Organizational Development & Training, and Performance Management. These efforts help institutionalize what we are trying to accomplish and further our core values.
Significantly, we are also in the process of creating the first Innovation Lab in City government. In partnership with Philadelphia University, the lab will be at the top floor of the Municipal Services Building and will host a first of its kind Innovation Academy to give our employees the creative tools and unique space to solve problems. These important efforts will be launched early in 2014.
However, ensuring innovation doesn’t always need to be that elaborate. One simple way to institutionalize creative thinking is by just scheduling for it. Last year, I began scheduling a regular brainstorming session with a small creative team that has helped encourage innovation. In these sessions, I bring together a diverse high energy group of creative thinkers, letting the group explore problems, ideas, and solutions without the fear of their creative process being rejected or criticized. It is a safe place. Every two weeks, this innovation brainstorming session includes Chief Innovation Officer, Adel Ebeid; Chief Customer Service Officer, Rosetta Carrington Lue; Chief Data Officer, Mark Headd; Chief Grant Officer, Maari Porter; Director of Innovation Management, Andrew Buss; Director of Civic Technology, Tim Wisniewski; Assistant Managing Director, Ryan Birchmeier; and Special Events Coordinator, Robert T Allen. Purposely, there is no agenda or formal structure to this meeting other than the all important—BE CREATIVE.
What this meeting does, however, is allow a diverse group of thinkers, all very smart and from their own “community of practice” to share problems and creatively discuss potential solutions and new ideas. We explore new possibilities and freely ask the “What if” question: “What if we approached this a little differently?”
We share what we have seen in our various communities. We test assumptions and discuss pros and cons of potential solutions. I try to make sure everyone has an equal voice. No idea is too crazy. I try to speak last (if I can restrain my excitement) so others aren’t influenced by my perspective. These meetings are not only amongst the most enjoyable (we laugh a lot together) but they have also been very productive often leading to new and exciting initiatives.
As a result of these meetings, I believe it is possible to institutionalize creative thinking for yourself and your team. What is stopping you from blocking off one hour of your schedule to regularly put down your phone, minimize your email, and seriously think about a problem? From bringing good people together around that problem? As managers, we are regularly presented with problems but we rarely give ourselves the time to think about truly creative solutions as a matter of practice.
In 2014, give your team, and yourself, a chance to be innovative in how you solve every day issues. In the very least, it will reinforce a culture of continuous improvement and creative problem solving.
2) Meeting Better
Most organizations spend a great deal of time in meetings. Despite that fact, surprisingly, we spend very little time thinking about meeting design. I know that has been the case for me throughout my career regardless of the organization. A few weeks ago, my Executive Team (working with our new Center of Excellence) began working on re-designing our team’s meeting practices at my request. This year, I hope to have better meetings.
We’ve all been in meetings that just don’t work. In every organization, meeting dynamics can greatly impact a team’s ability to be productive and achieve its core mission. To be a truly high performing and functional team, meetings have to matter. Meetings have to achieve results. We have all been in meetings that seem unnecessary, redundant, disorganized, or just disrespectful of our time. Participants can become distracted or unengaged. (You know, that moment when the majority of folks check their smart phone.)
Also, some team dynamics can negatively impact meetings. For example, meetings can be dominated by a few vocal personalities drowning out the other relevant voices in the room. Someone who is well regarded, sometimes known as the “Halo Effect,” can disproportionately drive the meeting and not have their ideas flushed out. Others can be influenced by the leader or bend toward an idea that appears to have momentum in a way that inhibits full and honest participation. Dynamics like these can prevent the full consideration of an idea or the important analysis of the relevant pros and cons necessary to good decision-making. If you aren’t careful, any number of meeting dynamics can take hold. Avoiding these pitfalls is a challenge but there are a few simple concepts that can help.
First, ask yourself the basics: “Is the meeting actually necessary?” Sometimes an issue pops up and the default response is to schedule a meeting and pull everyone in. Although meetings are an incredibly crucial aspect of any work environment, by and large, time spent in meetings is time spent away from the actual work required to get things done. We should only decide to have meetings when they are necessary, not by default. I’m not suggesting meetings should be discouraged, I’m suggesting we ask ourselves whether a meeting is required or whether we can address the issue through other means. Second, we need to ask ourselves who absolutely needs to be there? It’s been my experience that smaller meetings tend to be more efficient, productive, and more personal (which leads to better and more honest input). For those reasons, whenever possible, I prefer meetings of just a few people.
In the Managing Director’s Office, we will explore the types of meetings we hold and make sure that there is clarity of purpose. The meeting’s purpose requires some desired outcome. Is this a planning meeting? Is this a communication meeting to update an important member of the team? Is this a brainstorming or problem-solving meeting? Is this a decision-making meeting? A follow up on past action items and update on progress meeting? After determining a meeting’s true purpose (or multiple purposes), then you can begin to decide on how to prepare.
Does the team need handouts in advance? What’s the formal agenda? If it’s a brainstorming session, do we really need an agenda? Once the meeting is underway, can we keep it on track to make sure we hear from everyone and reach a good outcome? In my office, we will be asking ourselves these questions in 2014. We can all improve our meetings. This year, I resolve to do that for my team.
3) Proactive Leadership
In times of crisis, we can sometimes find ourselves being “reactive leaders,” hunting for information and making “on-the-fly” changes as required. In 2014, working on proactive leadership (planned, well communicated, and then real-time decisions) will help to create a more fluid, agile, and effective organization.
One of the ways we’re working on proactive leadership in 2014 is by exploring the use of a digital executive dashboard. As a designated Microsoft Next City, I have asked Microsoft to partner with us around a state of the art technology solution to help us improve performance and better utilize our data. Through this technology and dashboard, leaders at all levels can potentially view real-time and relevant operational metrics of their choosing on any device. Managers can customize their personal dashboard to view the Key Performance Indicators that are most important to them. Managers can also set-up notifications for metrics so that they can “step in” to fix a small problem before it becomes a big one. This effort will help us make better decisions on readily available data to improve service and prevent issues before they arise.
Whether you’re using a real-time digital executive dashboard or not, proactive leadership involves effective communication between a manager and his/her team and good use of available data, a worthy resolution for the upcoming year. I resolve to do that better for my team in 2014.
In closing, each of these resolutions will improve how we serve our citizens every single day. Each furthers our vision for continuous improvement and innovative thinking. As Dr. King said:
All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.
I wish a happy and prosperous New Year to all. Let’s make 2014 a year where creative solutions lead to excellence and breakthrough outcomes for all of us.
Now that you’ve seen my “Manager’s Resolutions” for the upcoming year, what are yours?
Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.